As the 16th census of India is about to be conducted, several marginalized organizations and leaders have intensified their demand for a caste census. This is happening in the background, when the government is yet to publish the caste wise data of 2011 census and the parliament has been informed that the government has no intention of enumerating caste based census in the upcoming census of 2021.
Though the decadal census that is conducted in India records the population of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the caste census of 1931 (pre independence India) serves as data for estimating the OBC population in India.
A nationwide demographic record on how various castes are placed in Indian society remains unclear. The demand for a caste based census, enumerating data relating to all castes, is a long pending demand in this light.
The state assemblies of Maharashtra and Bihar have also passed resolutions in support of a caste based census, with Orissa being the recent one. More and more OBC and marginalized leaders are organizing in support of the caste based census, the latest development being former Rajya Sabha MP, Ali Anwar Ansari, along with several Pasmanda organizations asking to extend the base of caste census to minority communities as well, as they also practice the caste system. Overall, a demand which shares the concerns of state governments, prominent political leaders and organizations representing majority population of India should be seen as a legitimate demand.
But the Brahmin led savarna progressive space in India has started calling it as an opportunist move, relegating it as a divisive one. What is noteworthy, as long as social media and some organizations were raising the issue, it was not being highlighted by the savarna media. But when the Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar led delegation, which included Tejashwi Yadav and Jitan Ram Manjhi, proposed to PM Modi that a caste census is the need of the hour, suddenly everybody was talking about it.
Journalists and the so-called progressive savarna sections started calling the demand for a caste census as a political strategy to woo votes, that this is just a demand to ask for more reservation and how in totality is a destructive one. To reduce a democratic demand to an individual aspiration is how savarnas thrive in a caste society like India. The same is not true in case of marginalized castes. The common argument across savarna sections is that it will lead to more casteism. This also comes from a sense of entitlement that majority marginalized castes have no idea about what constitutes development and nation making.
A person from a marginalized caste being strategically placed in a society that deprives him of basic rights has a more nuanced idea of what constitutes equality and dignified life than a person who is enjoying a dignified position in society because of exploiting that social positioning.
When the reality of India is a caste society based on hierarchy of castes with Brahmins at the top of this order, it’s automatically implied that there must be inequalities present in that society, that there are castes subservient to some castes. Now a collective demand to enumerate the demographics of those inequalities is not a destructive one; it’s a positive intervention asking the state to be more accountable. In a very short period, numerous articles have come from media people to judges writing against the caste census. Not to forget this has again brought back the household opinion of savarna communities, “that Reservation was for ten years only” as a fact. This is an establishment that categorically ignores so many pertinent issues regarding majority marginalized population.
Caste atrocities are a routine here with no justice system in place. Institutional discrimination is carried out as a norm. Issues raised by marginalized people are labeled as criminal or divisive. In fact many issues of national importance concerning marginalized population remain ignored for months by institutions. But caste census in a few days gained everybody’s significant attention. The issue would have remained trivial but OBC leaders, activists and people belonging to marginalized castes made it a priority, and hence it became a national issue, thereby a Brahmin problem.
Noteworthy in this regard, the same section has called Modi’s cabinet reshuffle as a political masterstroke, as a positive change. Those hitherto marginalized backward communities are the face of the cabinet. The same media changes its stance when the same communities are demanding caste census. The way ‘political masterstroke’ changes to ‘opportunistic, divisive politics’ when representatives of majority marginalized population are making their claims for a more egalitarian representation, is what decodes the Brahminical mindset.
Cabinet reshuffle comprising ministers from a few OBC castes at the behest of the Brahminical regime is seen as a positive change. Here the regime is controlling narratives and policy incentives. But a nationwide census reveals how castes are placed in society, the disadvantages and advantages surrounding them gives every community a chance to become decision makers, to mobilize and assert claims for a more equitable representation.
This will also counter the prejudice that surrounds marginalized communities availing affirmative action. From judiciary to academia, petitions and protests against flouting of reservation policies are always silenced by the narrative that, “since some members of these communities have become financially affluent so reservation should end.” And judicial observations that reflect presumed certainty affecting the lives of majority population of this country.
Instead of granting justice and proportionate representation that constitutional safeguards promise, institutions talk like monarchs.
Caste census has created a huge uproar in the minds of upper caste dominated institutions. They do not feel ashamed when they pass judgments affecting the lives of millions on the basis of a narrative passed from generation to generation in an upper caste household. But they do feel disturbed when a nationwide census demands to break that casteist narrative. Media houses are very comfortable in producing articles that document the negligible representation of marginalized castes across institutions. Lately, this new trend has started in the name of diversity and representation but it is highlighted to the point that no constructive change should come of it. Same media houses are unnerved when caste census asserts a more transparent and wider representation.
One argument is also being given that it will be a complicated task. In a society divided in to thousands of castes and those castes further divided in to sub-castes–of course it will be complicated. That Does Not mean It’s Unnecessary. Caste system has continued for so long as a social order that it has been normalized. Any policy intervention or change questioning its sanctity, threatens the fundamentals of the social order.
Another argument that is being put forward by savarnas (who want to sound rational and at the same time want to put forward their casteist claims also) that a general census has been instrumental behind many welfare schemes for the marginalized and it has brought change. Those schemes are sufficient enough and the state is capable enough to carry forward those changes. So why caste based census? This mindset stems from the belief that, how much is too much for the marginalized population? How many TV debates have been conducted, articles have been written on the way savarnas enjoy social capital and power? That such and such communities have amassed huge wealth and this much is enough? Then why an entire Brahminical establishment keeps reminding us that a line needs to be drawn on our legitimate claims as citizens of this country?
To quote Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar :
“whatever view may be taken of the advantages or disadvantages of caste as a social institution, it is impossible to conceive of any useful discussion of the population questions in India in which caste would not be an important element. Caste is still ‘the foundation of Indian social fabric’, and the record of caste is still ‘the best guide to the changes in various social strata in the Indian society’. Every Hindu (using the term in its most elastic sense) is born in to a caste and his caste determines his religious, social, economic and domestic life from the cradle to the grave. In western countries the major factors which determine the different strata of society, viz, wealth, education and vocation are fluid and catholic and tend to modify the rigidity of birth and hereditary position. In India spiritual and social community and traditional occupation override all other factors.Thus, where in censuses of western countries, an economic and occupational grouping of the population affords a basis for the combination of demographic statistics, the corresponding basis in the case of Indian population is the distinction of religion and caste. Whatever view may be taken of caste as a national and social institution, it is useless to ignore it, and so long as caste continues to be used as one of the distinguishing features of an individual’s official and social identity, it cannot be claimed that a decennial enumeration helps to perpetuate an undesirable institution”.
Caste census has a long way to go. A nationwide consensus will chart out the longer course. But, at this moment it is very much evident that collective democratic claims of equality and representation are stifled by mainstream in to narratives that serves the purpose of savarna hegemony.
Ambedkar, Babasaheb Dr B R. 1979. Dr B R Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches. Volume 5. New Delhi: Dr B R Ambedkar Foundation, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.
Neha hails from Samastipur, Bihar. She has completed her Graduation from Miranda House, Delhi University and Masters from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her areas of interest are casteism in Higher education, Anti-caste Pedagogy, Marginalized women and their agency in Indian society, Intersectionality and Critical Race theory.